Not-so-barren Barrens

July 12, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Rushford Sand Barrens Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is anything but barren.  Located in the driftless area of Minnesota, untouched by the most recent glaciers, it encompasses sand prairie, bluff prairie, forest, black oak woods, and a wealth of flowers.

We’ve visited the site several times but never made it to the central valley, mainly because getting there involves a lot of up before heading down.  Just getting to the first sand prairie involves a steep, steep climb, then a gentler descent onto a hillside where last year we saw native lupine blooming in abundance. Reaching the second prairie takes an even steeper climb before the descent into the central valley.  We’ve tried this second climb twice now, and both times, about halfway up, we’ve craned our necks back, looked at all the steepness still to climb, and voted to go back down into the first valley. This time, though, we went with Brian O’Brien, who knows the ways of Rushford Sand Barrens and so much more.

We’d come to try to see goat’s-rue, a flower of special concern in Minnesota, and we found a single flower cluster still in bloom amid the leaves of plants and flowers gone to seed. I’ve wanted to see this elegantly beautiful flower ever since I came across a picture of it in a wildflower guide years ago.  Now, seeing the leaves alongside the path, we realized we’d walked by the not-blooming plants before without realizing what they were until Brian pointed them out. This year’s heat has speeded up the bloom time on many flowers; next year we’ll try coming earlier in hopes of an abundance of blooms, but it was thrilling to finally see even one flower cluster blooming.

We wandered along a path through the black oak trees and past bright yellow puccoon, flowering spurge, wild bergamot, and one last wild lupine blooming. At the bottom of the first valley we eyed the (for us, so far) unclimbable climb.  But Brian headed up, so we followed.  About halfway up the hill he turned and followed a trail that paralleled the ridge.  Soon we saw why.  As we went parallel to the ridge across the side of the hill, the top of the ridge was sloping down in the same direction. Eventually our path and the top of the sloping ridge would meet without any more up on our part. Along the way we passed round-leaved hepatica leaves, sharp-leaved hepatica leaves, and a single downy rattlesnake plantain in bud. As we came out of the trees heading toward the valley Brian pointed out the tiny bright pink flower of racemed milkwort, one of the milkworts we’d been searching for.

The central valley sloped down into more sand prairie surrounded by hills and forest and overlooked by rocky bluffs. Clammy ground cherry and leadplant bloomed in the dry, dry sand. Brian pointed out a new-to-us flower, false gromwell or marbleseed, and told us the flowers stay so tightly closed that bumblebees must fight their way inside. Far away from anything besides sand, flowers, grasses, trees, and silence we felt as though we had entered another, secret world. Who knew a sand prairie on a hot, sunny day could be so magical?

Once we had traversed, descended, ascended, and descended our way back to the cars, we made one more stop at a roadside sand prairie where Brian showed us Illinois tick-trefoil, an uncommon flower in Minnesota growing at the northern edge of its range.

Best part of the day:  spending it with someone who generously shared his deep knowledge and love of native wildflowers with us.  Thank you, Brian O’Brien!

Author: kellypovo

Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. Her cards, gift books, and calendars have been sold internationally. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is her first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

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